(Santa Fe, NM: The Santa Fe Writer’s Project, 2020)
Beauty by Christina Chiu follows aspiring fashion designer Amy Wong through a lifetime of adversity in an industry and culture that restricts the will and autonomy of women. In unflinching and emotionally charged prose, Chiu explores the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality, exploring the ways in which identity both informs and hinders one’s ability to make meaningful change and decisions.
The novel spans Amy’s lifetime, with each chapter leaping years ahead to capture a different stage in her life. Though the chapters are arranged in chronological order, readers are placed in new times without context. No exposition is offered for the skipped years, and questions and challenges that arose in the previous chapter are not addressed immediately, or directly. The reader is plucked from one segment in Amy’s life to the next, with little to orient them within her story. Yet, this structure is one of the novel’s greatest strengths: the fractured and jarring transitions serve to emphasize Amy’s lack of control as though she, too, is unsure how and why her life progresses the way it does. By withholding any explanation of how Amy moves from one moment in her life to the next, Chiu highlights Amy’s inability to reclaim her autonomy and choice.
While the time jumps continue through each chapter of the book, Chiu’s approach develops over the course of the novel. At the beginning, the chapters lack connective tissue entirely, offering no transitions or exposition. The first chapter ends with Amy’s mother kicking her out of their home, and Amy watching as her “car turns the corner” and her Ma “disappears.” The following chapter begins with Amy eyeing “black boots. There in the window.” The reader is unsure where she is, what window she is looking through, or how long it’s been since her mother left. Similarly, the following chapter begins with an older Amy — though her age is not explicitly stated — in the apartment of an unfamiliar male character. Several pages in, readers are told that Ma “sold the house and moved into the city” with Amy’s sister, though the truth about her father’s abandonment is not shared with readers for some time after that. Readers are left to piece together small clues about Amy’s life, without ever forming a full picture. This structure mirrors Amy’s experience, particularly in the early years of her life. Amy is repeatedly subject to the whims and desires of others: whether it’s her father leaving her, her mother kicking her out, or the series of abusive men she forms relationships with in her youth. Just as the reader is unsure how Amy moves from one time in her life to another, Amy has little to no control over the decisions she is able to make and the quality of relationships she is able to build. Through this, Chiu not only encourages readers to engage and empathize with Amy’s experience but also implicitly calls out the misogynistic and racist power structures that strip women — particularly women of color and children of immigrants — of choice and opportunity.
Readers jump from Amy’s time in graduate school to her courtship with famous stylist Jeff Jones, to her experience as the mother of an overactive toddler. There is a noticeable shift, however, around the time Amy’s son enters his teen years. One chapter ends with her son, Alex, suffering a traumatic brain injury. The following chapter, “Black Ice,” jumps forward in time, as all previous chapters have. But for the first time, Chiu offers an extensive explanation of what has occurred between the last chapter and Amy’s present. Readers are able to orient themselves to the new time in Amy’s life, with a clear vision of her circumstances and how they came to be. From here forward, each time jump follows the same format, no matter how many years are skipped. While Amy still struggles to regain control and choice in her life, she is now aware of the circumstances and power structures that lead her into the situations she feels trapped in.
The chapter “Toby” opens with the most explicit exposition provided in the novel thus far, with the line, “Me, Amy Wong, 45, divorced again, at the precipice of my new life.” This opening is in stark contrast to the previous chapters and, as this shift implies, marks a significant change in Amy’s life and how she engages with it. This chapter follows Amy as she confronts her physically abusive second-husband, despite a life of avoiding conflict. Rather than hiding from her neighbors as she usually does, Amy calls attention to the aggressive scene her ex makes outside her house, and calls the police on him rather than letting her step-son, Toby, return to his home. While Amy’s narrative voice is strong and self-aware throughout the novel, this is the first moment she truly regains control and confronts oppressive power structures in a tangible way.
The novel’s final chapter finds Amy in the last years of her life, concerned as her granddaughter announces her engagement and plans to have children. Amy worries her granddaughter will lose her career and future, furious that “this younger generation” has the “freedom to choose who and what they want to be,” and that everything that Amy’s “generation of women fought against, they embrace like shit got turned to diamonds.” This line emphasizes the core conflict of the novel: that the “freedom to choose” was stripped from Amy throughout her life. Grappling with her granddaughter’s choice, Amy goes to an anti-sensory float tank and, in the weightless dark, her “body slips away. For a moment. For a lifetime.” Amy feels that her “life dissolves and only then does it show itself” to her. In that moment, she experiences a series of flashbacks, recalling small and grand moments throughout her life. For the first time in the novel, Amy truly experiences her life and memories, all the blanks filled in. It is only as her “body slips away” that she can finally understand the series of events that brought her to this moment and the relationships and choices that made up her life. Chiu seems to argue two things: that Amy can only regain her life through truly remembering it, and that her control over her life has been denied until this point, due to the external social structures that stripped her and her body of control due to her intersecting marginalized identities.
Yet Beauty ends on a note of hope. Not only does Amy find it in her heart to be excited for her granddaughter’s marriage and family after her time in the float, but she also reclaims parts of her life, beautiful and challenging and frustrating alike. Though readers are left wondering if her granddaughter can truly find happiness and balance in her career and family lives, and lamenting the fact that Amy never truly had the chance to find this balance herself, the conclusion allows the women in the story to reclaim their journeys and the beauty in their lives’ imperfections.
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Briana McDonald’s fiction has appeared in The Stonecoast Review, Glassworks Magazine, The Cardiff Review, Rozyln: Short Fiction by Women Writers, and Marathon Literary Review. She is an Associate Editor and a prose reader at The Literary Review.